A Food Critic's First Day On the Ground, Part 1

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There are three ways to experience a new city for the first time. One, you can cower like a lazy business traveler in your hotel room/rented townhouse/office, eat out of minibars and vending machines, drink nothing but Sanka, poke your head tentatively out of your front door like a vole sniffing for wolverines (they eat voles, right?) and hope against hope that Jesus and the city planners have seen fit to put a Hooters, a Mickey D's and a Cheesecake Factory all within sprinting distance--something safe and familiar that you can run to, eat at and navigate without any fear of getting lost, spooked, talked to or looked at crosswise.

Two, you can research. You can huddle up in front of the computer and start Googling well-liked sushi restaurants and sandwich places, comfortable bars and lunch spots. You can cruise the message boards, read other people's opinions on everything from the local coffee shop to that weird noodle shop down the street. By the time you're done, it'll be like you've been everywhere without ever really going anywhere at all. Safe, easy, antiseptic and even a little bit social. Demented and sad, as John Bender would say, but social nonetheless. Kind of.

Three, you can walk. And then walk some more. Walk until you're tired, see where you've ended up, eat there, drink there, make some friends--and then start walking again. It's the Russian Roulette method, a kind of culinary game-of-chance with nothing but your liver, your belly and your wallet on the line. Obviously, it's my favorite--the one that has gotten me drunk, turned around, hopelessly lost, punched in the face, well-fed, and shown the elephant in more cities than I can count.

"So what are you going to do now?" I was asked once I'd gotten my office phone turned on, my computer up and running, my paperwork filled out and signed in blood.

"Dunno," I said. "Guess I'm gonna take a walk. See what kind of trouble I can get into."

Out the door and onto the street. In a new town, every direction is a right one. For a man with no fixed destination, there are no wrong turns. I ducked through a couple alleys and across a parking lot, and there, just above the roofs of the cars, was one of the sweetest sights a man might behold: the black-and-white logo of Sir Arthur's finest.

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According to its website, the Owl n' Thistle has some history. 1930's cafeteria, Cajun this and John Wayne that, sold and sold and sold again. What mattered to me was the Guinness on draft, the Jameson behind the bar, and the dark wood lining the main room, which made it look like a proper Irish pub even if the menu (chicken fingers, reubens, pasta salad and some kind of stuffed chicken made Mick-ish by dint of "Irish liqueur"--a menu description that had me choking back the dirtiest of jokes) didn't necessarily bear out the comparison. I ordered the colcannon, a bit of cabbage and potatoes to cushion the blow of my shot-and-a-beer breakfast, and tucked in.

Denver, where I lived until this week, is not exactly a town known for its profusion of proper Irish pubs. I knew of one place to get a well-poured Guinness, frequented a couple where the fish fries were passable (cod in a jacket, simple and greasy and bad for you, not fucked up with a bunch of mango salsa or microbrew batter) and avoided the rest of the plastic Paddy hell-holes, completely, content to leave them to their crowds of Budweiser girls and ballcap boys horking beer into the gutters on a Saturday night.

It was a comfortable room. My pint had a nice collar on it. The colcannon wasn't soul-stirring, but it was edible, especially when mounded up on a hunk of the kitchen's sweet, heavy brown bread. And when I asked for my whiskey with just a couple rocks, that was the way it came. A fine start, but nothing more. Less than an hour and I was anxious to get gone.

Out the door, back on the street. I headed up 1st Avenue until I smelled the dark, meaty, smoky stink of barbecue somewhere ahead.

Revisit Voracious at the crack of dawn Monday (Jan. 25) for Part II of Jason Sheehan's first-day eating odyssey.

 
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